Does society get the police it deserves?

Updated Wednesday, 11th January 2012
Dick Skellington reports how freedom of information legislation revealed two worrying sets of statistics.

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A cartoon in which a concerned criminal calls for help from the police Two stories about the police in England and Wales emerged over the Christmas and New Year which caught my eye.

The first story, given alarmist headlines in the tabloids, told us that among police forces England and Wales were 944 officers, including two chief inspectors, with criminal records. However, the figure is likely to be much higher. Hundreds of other officers would have featured in the revelations if they had not already resigned from their posts following misconduct allegations, while criminal records dating from before police staff joined were not scrutinised. Over 130 officers left Scotland Yard during 2011 instead of facing disciplinary measures. 

The second, given less publicity, told us that hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of goods and property has been stolen from police stations in England and Wales.

No one attempted to connect the two stories, and indeed there is no evidence of any link. However, both sets of evidence do not reflect well on our police forces at the end of a year that has seen many establishments linked to newspaper phone-hacking, and at long last, a glimpse of justice for the deserving Lawrences who lost their son to racist thuggery in Eltham in 1993 – an Eltham which, if other reports are any indication, remains ‘the capital of racism in the South East’. 

The fact that police officers have criminal records perhaps is no surprise, but what in a sense is more worrying was that such information was not voluntarily offered by the police themselves. The findings in both reports were revealed in response to requests under the freedom of information legislation. If we did not have that legislation then it is highly likely that the scale of criminal misconduct among the police, and the thefts from stations would have emerged. 

The information about criminal records came following a request from a civilian. Eleven forces out of 43 have so far failed to provide any information. Among the 32 that did reveal the information the Metropolitan Police accounted for over 40 per cent of the total, employing 397 staff with a criminal record. They were followed by Kent (49), Devon and Cornwall (44), Essex (42), and South Yorkshire (35). Several forces had relatively very low numbers. Durham reported only 4, Cheshire 3, Avon and Somerset 2, while Gwent reported they employed no staff with a criminal record.

There are 140,000 police officers, 15,000 Police Community Safety Officers (PCSOs), and 73,000 civilian staff employed in the 43 forces of England and Wales. Of the 944 serving officers and PCSOs with convictions, the majority are for traffic offences – speeding and drink driving – but there are many officers who have committed other crimes, such as dishonesty, fraud, burglary, robbery, supplying drugs, and assault.   

While some of these offences occurred while in police employment, others relate to behaviour before the staff joined the police, thus raising questions about the recruitment of police staff.

Home Office guidelines issued in 2003 insist police officers should have "proven integrity" because they are vulnerable to pressure from criminals to reveal information. Forces are expected to reject potential recruits with convictions for serious offences – including causing actual bodily harm, burglary, dangerous driving and supplying drugs – unless there are "exceptionally compelling circumstances".

As for the thefts from police stations, most of the stolen items relates to police equipment and personal belongings. Items stolen included handcuffs, warrant cards, speed guns, uniforms, dogs, riot shields, bicycles, a battering ram, mobile phones, computers, breathalysers, and dozens of patrol cars. Again the information was not offered by the police themselves but gathered following a freedom of information request from the Press Association. The worst affected force was the Greater Manchester Police which has since begun to reinforce measures to secure stations and especially police vehicles after reported losses of over £87,000.

The list of stolen items is quite eclectic. In West Oxfordshire, for example, thieves took CCTV footage and a television set. A packet of crumpets was reported stolen in Hull. In Lancaster the loss of a fern and a plastic plant pot were reported. A mannequin disappeared from police kennels in Epping. Terriers, lurchers and pitbulls were reported stolen in Blackburn and Merseyside.  A 20-pack of toilet rolls was taken from West Mercia police headquarters while in Pontefract someone ran off with the £48 staff tea float!  Not surprisingly the Taxpayers Association have asked for an investigation among growing concerns that the police seem unable to follow their own crime prevention advice.

Food for thought here, thanks to the freedom of information function. Robert Peel, who pioneered organised policing in England and Wales, once said: ‘The police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.'

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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